Lawmakers end the 2021 legislative session with ban on masks, election changes

The Iowa Statehouse. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Nearly three weeks into overtime and after three back-to-back nights of debate, Iowa’s 2021 legislative session is over.

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, called it “the year of freedom for Iowans” be it through tax cuts, permitless carry of firearms or the choice not to wear a mask. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, highlighted Republican efforts to bring kids back to school in-person, expand broadband accessibility and protect police officers.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters early Thursday he wasn’t sure yet what Republicans would focus on next session, though he listed broadband and child care as issues that still needed work. He also said the proposed transgender sports ban, as proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, would be “part of the conversation between now and next session.”

The Legislature will return for a special session, tentatively in August, to deal with redistricting, Grassley said. Normally, the Legislature would have handled that once-a-decade task during regular session, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s data was delayed.

Democratic leaders had a less rosy view of the legislative session, emphasizing inaction on the COVID-19 pandemic. House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said the virus had killed 1,875 Iowans since the session began in January.

“Instead of working together to enact aggressive recovery plans in the middle of this life-changing pandemic, Governor Reynolds and Republican leaders chose a partisan agenda that by and large ignored the pandemic,” Prichard said.

In a closing speech, Grassley said Republicans aided COVID-19 recovery by budgeting responsibly and pursuing tax cuts, allowing Iowans to keep more of their money.

Iowa lawmakers passed several final bills Wednesday to forbid mask mandates by schools and local governments, change more election laws and create a framework for spending billions of federal pandemic aid dollars. 

Education policy and a face coverings ban — Signed into law

Reynolds signed into law early Thursday morning an education bill with a controversial amendment that forbids schools, cities and counties from requiring face masks. The law takes effect immediately.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions,” Reynolds said in a press release.

House File 847 would also increase some education tax credits, amend the rules for open enrollment and require schools to lead the pledge of allegiance daily.

Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said constituents across the state had objected to mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a theme that I have heard quite loudly,” he said.

Democrats objected to the amendment, arguing it would unnecessarily restrict local governments and complicate the response to any future health emergencies.

“I think we really have to think about our responsibility to each other,” said Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, emphasizing the importance of mask-wearing for public health. “Government is how we do things together that we can’t do individually.”

Election changes — Passed the House and Senate

The House passed a bill Wednesday that changes some election laws, including provisions that change a sweeping elections bill that passed in February. The Senate conformed to the amendment and voted 29-17 to pass the bill, sending it to Reynolds.

Democrats took the opportunity to re-debate new restrictions on who can return absentee ballots for other individuals. The first election bill specified that only household and family members, caregivers and some election officials could return absentee ballots. The amended Senate File 568 defines immediate family member to include great-great-grandchildren and some cousins.

“That still doesn’t solve any kind of the problems that you caused by passing the first bill,” said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, a leader on both the new and previous election bills, said that the restriction was meant to ensure absentee ballots were as secure as in-person voting.

Standing appropriations — Passed House and Senate

The catch-all “standing” budget, which includes funding odds and ends that didn’t make it into other bills, passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday night. The bill includes:

  • Funding for nonpublic school transportation
  • Funding for the chief information officer and the state public defender
  • Requires casinos to pay a minimum wage of $9.06 per hour
  • Allows the Office of the Chief Information Officer to hire a chief financial officer
  • Allows districts to raise property taxes to fund emergency medical services

Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, said lawmakers tried to keep the bill short this session.

“We know there’s things that everybody wants in a wish list that we don’t have or didn’t get,” he said. “There’s next session as well, so we can talk about some of those things.”

The House passed the bill along party lines, but not before Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, criticized the decision to complete the Workday deal by appropriating another $23 million. Workday, a software package, was at the center of a no-bid contract pursued by Reynolds.

The governor moved to pay the initial $21 million part of the contract with federal pandemic aid before state and federal auditors said that was illegal and Reynolds returned the money to pandemic accounts. The Legislature later appropriated $21 million, a year after objecting to the contract, before agreeing to the second installment Wednesday.

“After the Legislature got snookered into paying for a contract that it never approved, to the tune of $21 million … you, the majority party are providing that contract an additional $23 million,” Hall said. “The Legislature is going to appropriate $44 million total for a contract that we never approved for a contract that is fishy.”

Block grant budget — Passed House and Senate

Iowa would set up new accounts to handle $1.4 billion from the latest federal stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan, under a bill that won final legislative approval in the Senate Wednesday. 

House File 895 would set up the machinery to get an expected $7 billion in federal aid to state departments and programs, including $368.1 million in block grants. A coronavirus fiscal recovery fund would contain the $1.4 billion. The state accounts would go away in a couple of years. 

The bill sets up a new coronavirus capital projects fund expected to distribute $152.8 million. The American Rescue Plan includes money that can be used for new health and sanitation equipment, public transit and reopening schools, for example.  

Katie Akin
Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.
Perry Beeman
Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.